Joy has not exactly been in abundant supply in headlines in recent years. But director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle knew it would be the key ingredient in bringing that most American of classic musicals, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, back to Broadway.
Having last collaborated on the exuberant production of Hello, Dolly! that earned the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2017, Carlyle and Zaks became attached to Willson’s masterpiece before the COVID shutdown. So did Hugh Jackman, who signed on to play traveling salesman/con artist Harold Hill, and Sutton Foster, cast as Marian Paroo, the prim, discerning librarian and piano teacher who threatens to expose him as a fraud when he tries to start a boys’ marching band in her small Iowa town. Originally scheduled to open in the fall of 2020, the show is currently in previews for a February 10 opening at the Winter Garden Theatre.
Zaks believes that Willson — who based fictional River City, Iowa, on his native Mason City — “would have enjoyed” the new staging. “He wrote about the show being a valentine to the people of Iowa, and he wanted to make it that they weren’t being made fun of, that it was done honestly and without gratuitous schtick. I think he did see it as a joy machine; I can’t believe that’s not where it was coming from.” Carlyle, who was born and raised in the U.K., saw Susan Stroman’s acclaimed 2000 revival of the musical, “and I was struck by how American it was, being new to America at the time. It’s such a celebration of life, and as a proud citizen, someone who has chosen to make America my home, that appeals to me. And it’s a beautiful love story, and I’m a desperate romantic.”
Carlyle and Zaks spent several days at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts researching Willson’s documents. Zaks notes that Willson — who wrote The Music Man’s book, music, and lyrics — “must have written over 35 drafts of it, and we looked at most of them along the way.” While staying true to the show’s spirit of good-natured satire, the director says, “We needed to identify what made sense then that might be confusing today.”
New lyrics were provided, for example, for the giddy dance number “Shipoopi.” As originally written, the song opens with the line “Well, a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy,” and contains morsels of advice, such as “Squeeze her once when she’s isn’t lookin’ / If you get a squeeze back, that’s fancy cookin’.” Musical comedy veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were enlisted to craft lyrics more in keeping with post-#MeToo sensibilities.
In contrast, Carlyle notes, lyrics that Willson had initially written for “My White Knight,” Marian’s account of the imperfect but noble Mr. Right she’s holding out for, were restored after having been cut. “It has a longer verse now, and is truer to what Meredith Willson originally wrote.” And while the song, like Marian’s others, has traditionally been a soprano showcase — Barbara Cook introduced the role, and the late Rebecca Luker played Marian in Stroman’s production — Foster delivers it in different, shifting keys that enable her to show off her powerful belt at the end. During other numbers, though, the actress reveals a graceful upper register.
While some of the keys have been adjusted, emphasizing that Marian isn’t just a delicate ingenue was part of the point. “The show is a period piece, but you have a modern woman up there now,” says Carlyle, praising Foster’s “fire and intelligence.” Zaks agrees: “Sutton brings great gusto and vitality and humanity to the part. Hugh liked her very much, and it was clear from the start that she was perfect. Because the heart and spine of the show is Harold and Marian’s love story. He’s committed to not falling in love with her; he wants to just score and leave town. She’s protecting herself, because the guys she has run across in River City are coarse and boorish. To watch her liberate herself in the course of an evening — she’s got to have a lot of spirit and soul.”
Carlyle, who has collaborated with Jackman on a number of projects, including 2011’s Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway — “I’ve been saying yes to Hugh whenever he calls, for 25 years,” the choreographer and director quips — was keen to take advantage of his leading man’s and woman’s physical facility. “For me, the biggest opportunity was having these two beautiful stars who can really move, so that I could tell the story more through dance,” he says. Carlyle figures that he and David Chase, the production’s vocal and dance arranger, created “something like 45 minutes of original music and dance” for numbers including “Shipoopi,” “Marian the Librarian,” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Working with two leads who happen to be among the most famously nice people in show business — when Foster was briefly out with COVID, Jackman’s tribute to understudy Kathy Voytko during curtain call went viral on social media — was another perk. “An audience can sense that the kindness and generosity of spirit these two people have are true. And they led the company with that kindness. They have big hearts, and you see it in the DNA of the show,” Carlyle says.
Zaks notes, “Meredith Willson said that this show is about faith — faith that things will get better, that they’ll work out in the long run, and that people will change. There is redemption. He called Harold Hill a good man who does bad things, and that’s what Hugh is trying to capture, very successfully, in these awful and challenging times.”
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